- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, he enlarged the Civil War from a war for union into a war for freedom. Despite the document’s limitations, it offered powerful incentive to slaves in the Confederacy attempting to reach Union lines. Lincoln’s proclamation, along with the increasingly voluble presence of those now free, confronted the nation with fundamental questions about what a war for freedom really meant. What did the nation owe former slaves? Could men and women raised under a system of bondage survive in the free labor system?

The women who are the subject of Carol Faulkner’s book “Women’s Radical Reconstruction” answered these questions with their actions. Their work on behalf of freedmen was rooted in an expansive understanding of what the nation owed ex-slaves making their way into freedom.

Professor Faulkner argues that women in the freedmen’s aid movement understood the nation’s responsibilities to go well beyond simply severing the bonds of slavery. They believed that in order to put flesh on the legislative bones of freedom, the nation was obligated to provide a range of supports, from provision of material relief to land and even to migration North.

She further argues that their commitments put them into continual conflict with mainstream male leadership of the movement, both within the federal government and in Northern philanthropic organizations.

For example, when Julia Wilbur arrived in Alexandria as a freedmen’s agent on behalf of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, she found a burgeoning population of blacks, many suffering from hunger and the dislocation of wartime. Whereas many of the military officials assigned to oversee the freedmen perceived them as a troublesome population to be managed, Wilbur looked on them as a people to be cared for and cultivated.

This put Wilbur and her fellow aid worker, Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive slave, into persistent conflict with military officials over matters ranging from getting adequate rations to protecting newly reconstituted families. Despite their accomplishments, the women found their ability to shape policy in the city limited by their status as women and by the precarious position of aid work.

It is in tracing the origins and experiences of these women that the author’s work shines. Through her close exploration of the work of a small number of women, she does an excellent job of teasing out the story of how women like Wilbur came to this work.

Building on skills developed in their anti-slavery work, they skillfully negotiated the network of governmental and voluntary associations governing the freedmen’s aid movement to gather support. Miss Faulkner also reveals the unanticipated consequences their work could have.

For example, Josephine Griffing, an Ohio abolitionist, feminist and freedmen’s aid activist, believed she was helping freedmen by getting them work in the North. These efforts, however, brought her into direct conflict with freedmen when it came to light that rather than sending orphans, she had in reality separated children from families.

Professor Faulkner evenhandedly examines her subjects’ motivations, centering their commitment to progressive benevolence, while recognizing that their lives as independent women often depended on the compensation and authority they earned in working for freedmen.

Despite her excellent archival work and the revealing episodes she has uncovered, the author’s larger arguments about the role of gender in the story are problematic. The bluntness of her interpretation does not match the subtlety of her evidence. Many Americans, and particularly those guiding federal policy toward freedmen, feared that material assistance would propel freedmen into an enduring pattern of dependence. While the author is correct to identify the significant connections between this idea and understandings of gender and race in 19th-century America, the discussion is too brief and too elliptical.

She further uses it to identify this moment as a precursor to the “gender gap” in 20th-century politics. In her conclusion, she writes, “As is true of the ‘gender gap’ in today’s political culture, women in the freedmen’s aid movement accepted the idea of state protection, believing that it offered a path to political inclusion for groups that had previously been excluded.”

This analysis is unsatisfying because it both fails to account for the many men who endorsed such a role for the state and contradicts the variable, improvisational approaches even her small number of committed women took in assisting ex-slaves’ transition to freedom. It also comes dangerously close to implying that women have an intrinsic, transhistorical commitment to inclusion, and government as the best means of achieving it.

Even the women in the book, unusual for their independence and shared commitment to freedmen’s aid, at times expressed doubts about the dangers of assistance. Professor Faulkner’s discussion bears witness to the unpredictable results that arose from competing commitments to feminism, freedmen’s aid, and Northern cultural patterns. In accounting for the variety she finds, she gives little weight to the impact that chronology had on ideas about the kinds of assistance freedmen needed. Many Americans expected the end of the war to mark the end of federal assistance for freedmen, but the recalcitrance of the South cultivated the public’s taste for Radical Reconstruction and expanded Northern sympathy for freedmen.

Finally, she suggests that the failure of the United States to maintain its commitment to assisting freedmen stemmed from the inability of women to shape federal policy toward an activist state. Yet she does not discuss the work of other historians who have noted that, at the same moment, the federal government underwent a considerable expansion when it began to provide pensions to thousands of Union soldiers.

Despite these shortcomings, the author sheds light on the conflicted character of the freedmen’s aid movement, offering vivid glimpses of the struggles that shaped the period more broadly. The disjuncture between the complexity of her evidence and the imprecision of her argument makes for a suggestive but frustrating read. The disjointed organization makes it a particularly challenging book for general readers. This is unfortunate because she makes an important case for exploring further the role gender played in shaping a radical moment in the history of the United States.

Catherine Jones is a doctoral candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University.

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